Editor's note: This is the first of two columns on happenings in the United Arab Emirates, which is a federation comprised of seven Arab states.
What is going on in Saudi Arabia? I first got a whiff of something happening in September when it was reported that Saudi women would be granted the right to drive. Was this a hint that modernization of the country could be in the works? As I researched, I became aware of Mohammad bin Salman, also known as MBS, son of Saudi King Salman. MBS is the crown prince, first deputy prime minister and, at age 32, the youngest minister of defense in the world. Recently, he has made a stunning power grab within his country.
More than five dozen Saudi princes, ministers and prominent billionaire businessmen were “rounded up” in a consolidation of MBS’s power. All their assets were seized under charges of corruption and abuse of power. Look out; there’s a new sheriff in town!
Since graduating with a major in law, MBS has been under the constant tutoring of his father. All reports indicate that his actions have the king’s full backing.
Knowing very little about the country, I did some more research. Around 1744 A.D. a tribal chieftain, Muhammad ibn Saud, formed an alliance with a powerful, ultraconservative preacher, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Together they created the first monarchial state on the Arabian Peninsula. Since then the power has rested with the royal family, governing by right of blood and succession, and Wahhabism preaching an extreme version of Islam.
Saudi Arabia is the world’s leading oil supplier, but MBS is looking far into the future. Recognizing that oil is a finite resource, he has presented a new economic model for his country’s future. The man is nothing if not a long-range thinker.
In addition to the prospect of creating the world's largest sovereign wealth fund with money generated by partially privatizing the state oil company, he has announced “Vision 2030,” an initiative that will include a $2.5 trillion megacity built in the middle of the desert. The plan also envisions changing the education curriculum, increasing women's participation in the workforce and investing in the entertainment sector to help create jobs for young people. In his favoring modernization of Saudi culture, he has taken on not only the powerful clerics but also, with the recent “roundup,” anyone else who might stand in his way.
If all that isn’t enough, in response to a recent question, an Israeli cabinet minister said Israel had covert ties with "many" Arab and Muslim states. This adds credence to what I have been hearing for quite some time. Since Iran is an enemy of both Israel and the Saudi’s, they have been in discussions about approaches to their mutual Iranian problem and other regional issues.
Is MBS a true reformer or a power-hungry despot? Is Israel really not only talking but also allying with some Arab states? The questions sure do make for some interesting speculation about the future of the Middle East.